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Lessons in Life

Lessons in Life

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Published by: api-3851226 on Oct 19, 2008
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The quick and cordial reception which greeted the author's \u201cLetters to the Young,\u201d and his
more recent series of essays entitled \u201cGold Foil,\u201d and the constant and substantial friendship
which has been maintained by the public toward those productions, must stand as his apology
for this third venture in a kindred field of effort. It should be\u2014and probably is\u2014unnecessary
for the author to say that in this book, as in its predecessors, he has aimed to be neither
brilliant nor profound. He has endeavored, simply, to treat in a familiar and attractive way a
few of the more prominent questions which concern the life of every thoughtful man and
woman. Indeed, he can hardly pretend to have done more than to organize, and put into form,
the average thinking of those who read his books\u2014to place before the people the sum of their
own choicer judgments\u2014and he neither expects nor wishes for these essays higher praise than
that which accords to them the quality of common sense.

SPRINGFIELD, MASS., November, 1861.

\u201cThat blessed mood
In which the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened.\u201d WORDSWORTH.

\u201cOh, blessed temper, whose unclouded ray Can make to-morrow cheerful as to-day.\u201d POPE.

\u201cMy heart and mind and self, never in tune;
Sad for the most part, then in such a flow
Of spirits, I seem now hero, now buffoon.\u201d

It rained yesterday; and, though it is midsummer, it is unpleasantly cool to-day. The sky is
clear, with almost a steel-blue tint, and the meadows are very deeply green. The shadows

among the woods are black and massive, and the whole face of nature looks painfully clean,
like that of a healthy little boy who has been bathed in a chilly room with very cold water. I
notice that I am sensitive to a change like this, and that my mind goes very reluctantly to its
task this morning. I look out from my window, and think how delightful it would be to take a
seat in the sun, down under the fence, across the street. It seems to me that if I could sit there
awhile, and get warm, I could think better and write better. Toasting in the sunlight is
conducive rather to reverie than thought, or I should be inclined to try it. This reluctance to
commence labor, and this looking out of the window and longing for an accession of strength,
or warmth, or inspiration, or something or other not easily named, calls back to me an
experience of childhood.

It was summer, and I was attending school. The seats were hard, and the lessons were dry, and
the walls of the school-room were very cheerless. An indulgent, sweet-faced girl was my
teacher; and I presume that she felt the irksomeness of the confinement quite as severely as I
did. The weather was delightful, and the birds were singing everywhere; and the thought came
to me, that if I could only stay out of doors, and lie down in the shadow of a tree, I could get
my lesson. I begged the privilege of trying the experiment. The kind heart that presided over
the school-room could not resist my petition; so I was soon lying in the coveted shadow. I
went to work very severely; but the next moment found my eyes wandering; and heart, feeling,
and fancy were going up and down the earth in the most vagrant fashion. It was hopeless
dissipation to sit under the tree; and discovering a huge rock on the hillside, I made my way to
that, to try what virtue there might be in a shadow not produced by foliage. Seated under the
brow of the boulder, I again applied myself to the dim-looking text, but it had become utterly
meaningless; and a musical cricket under the rock would have put me to sleep if I had
permitted myself to remain. I found that neither tree nor rock would lend me help; but down
in the meadow I saw the brook sparkling, and spanning it, a little bridge where I had been
accustomed to sit, hanging my feet over the water, and angling for minnows. It seemed as if
the bridge and the water might do something for me, and, in a few minutes, my feet were
dangling from the accustomed seat. There, almost under my nose, close to the bottom of the
clear, cool stream, lay a huge speckled trout, fanning the sand with his slow fins, and minding
nothing about me at all. What could a boy do with Colburn's First Lessons, when a living
trout, as large and nearly as long as his arm, lay almost within the reach of his fingers? How
long I sat there I do not know, but the tinkle of a distant bell startled me, and I startled the
trout, and fish and vision faded before the terrible consciousness that I knew less of my lesson
than I did when I left the school-house.

This has always been my fortune when running after, or looking for, moods. There is a
popular hallucination that makes of authors a romantic people who are entirely dependent
upon moods and moments of inspiration for the power to labor in their peculiar way. Authors
are supposed to write when they \u201cfeel like it,\u201d and at no other time. Visions of Byron with a
gin-bottle at his side, and a beautiful woman hanging over his shoulder, dashing off a dozen
stanzas of Childe Harold at a sitting, flit through the brains of sentimental youth. We hear of
women who are seized suddenly by an idea, as if it were a colic, or a flea, often at midnight,
and are obliged to rise and dispose of it in some way. We are told of very delicate girls who
carry pencils and cards with them, to take the names and address of such angels as may visit
them in out-of-the-way places. We read of poets who go on long sprees, and after recovery
retire to their rooms and work night and day, eating not and sleeping little, and in some
miraculous way producing wonderful literary creations. The mind of a literary man is
supposed to be like a shallow summer brook, that turns a mill. There is no water except when
it rains, and the weather being very fickle, it is never known when there will be water.

Sometimes, however, there comes a freshet, and then the mill runs night and day, until the
water subsides, and another dry time comes on.

Now, while I am aware, as every writer must be, that the brain works very much better at
some times than it does at others, I can declare without reservation, that no man who depends
upon moods for the power to write can possibly accomplish much. I know men who rely upon
their moods, alike for the disposition and the ability to write, but they are, without exception,
lazy and inefficient men. They never have accomplished much, and they never will
accomplish much. Regular eating, regular sleeping, regular working\u2014these are the secrets of
all true literary success. A man may throw off a single little poem by a spasm, but he cannot
write a poem of three thousand lines by spasms. Spasms that produce poems like this, must
last from five to seven hours a day, through six days of every week, and four weeks of every
month, until the work shall be finished. There is no good reason why the mind will not do its
best by regular exercise and usage. The mower starts in the morning with a lame back and
with aching joints; but he keeps on mowing, and the glow rises, and the perspiration starts,
and he becomes interested in his labor, and, at length, he finds himself at work with full
efficiency. He was not in the mood for mowing when he began, but mowing brought its own
mood, and he knew it would when he began. The mind is sometimes lame in the morning. It
refuses to go to work. Our wills seem entirely insufficient to drive it to its tasks; but if it be
driven to its work and held to it persistently, and held thus every day, it will ultimately be able
to do its best every day. A man who works his brains for a living, must work them just as
regularly as the omnibus-driver does his horses.

We sometimes go to church and hear a preacher who depends upon his moods for the power
to preach his best. He preaches well, and we say that he is in the mood; and then again he
preaches poorly, and we say that he is not in the mood. A public singer who has the power to
move us at her will, comes into the concert-room, and gives her music without spirit and
without making any apparent effort to please. We say that Madame or Mademoiselle is \u201cnot
in the mood to-night.\u201d A lecturer has his moods, which, apparently, he slips on and off as he
would a dressing-gown, charming the people of one town by his eloquence and elegance, and
disgusting another by his dullness and carelessness. We are in the habit of saying that certain
men are very unequal in their performances, which is only a way of saying that they are
moody, and dependent upon and controlled by moods. I think that, in any work or walk of life,
a man can in a great degree become the master of his moods, so that, as a preacher, or a singer,
or a lecturer, he can do his best every time quite as regularly as a writer can do his best every
time. Mr. Benedict somewhat inelegantly remarked, when in this country, that the reason of
Jenny Lind's success was, that she \u201cmade a conscience of her art.\u201d If we had asked Mr.
Benedict to explain himself, he probably would have said that she conscientiously did her best
every time, in every place. This was true of Jenny Lind. She never failed. She sang just as
well in the old church where the country people had flocked to greet her, as in the halls of the
metropolis. Yet Jenny Lind was decidedly a woman of moods, and indulged in them when she
could afford it.

The power of the will over moods of the mind is very noticeable in children. Children often
rise in the morning in any thing but an amiable frame of mind. Petulant, impatient,
quarrelsome, they cannot be spoken to or touched without producing an explosion of ill-
nature. Sleep seems to have been a bath of vinegar to them, and one would think the fluid had
invaded their mouth and nose, and eyes and ears, and had been absorbed by every pore of
their sensitive skins. In a condition like this, I have seen them bent over the parental knee, and
their persons subjected to blows from the parental palm; and they have emerged from the
infliction with the vinegar all expelled, and their faces shining like the morning\u2014the

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